When composer Nathan McCree wrote the soundtrack for the first ever Tomb Raider videogame 20 years ago, he unknowingly created the enduring melodic signature for its lead character Lara Croft.
Eschewing the booming soundtrack styles and electronic influences of other games on the market, he mined his classical and choral roots for influences that would best represent the Croft character.
Twenty years later and three Tomb Raider soundtracks under his belt, his music has become the defining sound of one of the world’s largest games franchises. It’s been repurposed, repackaged and reused across the whole brand, including the movies.
And now, to mark its 20th anniversary, Nathan has put together a concert suite for the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra based on his original themes.
The concert will be conducted by Robert Ziegler at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, London on the 18 December.
Here, we spend some time with Nathan to learn about his musical beginnings and hear how he created those iconic soundtracks…
When did you first start composing music?
I think I was about 13 years old. I always had a fascination for music right through my childhood and having started to learn the piano at 11 years old, I began playing around with patterns and harmonies. On my 13th birthday my father bought me my first synthesizer – a Korg Delta – and I would spend hours making sounds and writing synth patterns. Soon after, I taught myself how to use his reel-to-reel four-track tape recorder and I began layering my patterns and structuring them together into songs.
Who or what have been your biggest influences?
I would say probably my father. I remember he used to play this game with me where he would play a piece of classical music and I had to guess who wrote it. I was no good at the game and it used to annoy me at the time, but I guess it did expand my knowledge and it also trained me to analyse musical style and structure – something which I now do every single day of my life. My father ultimately taught me how to listen to music.
In terms of which bands have influenced me – there have been many. I can probably pick out a few which I latched onto as an impressionable teenager, bands like The Police, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and more recently Ozric Tentacles and Coldplay.
I have a few favourite film composers – John Williams, Alan Silvestri and Jerry Goldsmith. I’m also a big fan of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score. I also have a heavy church choral music influence as I was singing in a church choir from the age of six until I was 18, so four-part harmony plays a big part in my writing.
What do you remember most about working on the first three Tomb Raider games?
Gosh! I have a lot of memories from those three games. I’m not sure I can pinpoint a particular memory as being the most memorable. There are good memories and bad memories (I try to forget the bad ones). I guess the things that I treasure the most are the friends that I made whilst working on the projects. Back then, 20 years ago now, games were made very differently. Teams were much smaller. Tomb Raider, for example, had a core team of about six people. Today the team making Tomb Raider at Crystal Dynamics in the US is more towards the 200 mark. Back at Core Design in 1996 we didn’t really have anything like a Game Design Document, which game developers use today. We basically bolted the thing together as we went. Discussing ideas and trying them out in the game – if an idea had potential it would see several iterations before we had it working perfectly. As a result of our small team and this unique development process, we all got to know each other very well and the friendships we all made are something to be treasured.
What was the inspiration behind the soundtracks?
Mostly it was the character of Lara Croft. I remember when Toby Gard (original designer and creator of Tomb Raider) came to talk to me in my studio about the music for the game. And we spoke at some length about Lara Croft – who she was, her upbringing, her likes, dislikes, her character and personality, her wit, charm, elegance and her badass attitude to wasting baddies. We both quickly agreed that, because of her nationality and parentage, that English classical music would describe her best and would also suit the game from a cinematic point of view.
So with all that in mind I set about writing the theme tune. Of course I drew on my past experiences with classical music from the days of playing that guessing game with my father! And also there was a strong choral influence from my experiences singing in the choir for all those years. But ultimately I wanted to portray the character of Lara Croft. Other games of that time had mostly bombastic battle music or fast paced dance music and I felt there was a niche in the market for more emotional content; for sadness, loneliness, awe-inspiring moments and of course beauty. These were the emotions which I felt described Lara and which I tried to bring to the game.
Why do you think the scores have enjoyed such longevity?
That’s a difficult question. Who knows what really makes a tune last? I think simplicity is one aspect of it. If a melody is simple, people can repeat it, sing it, and they can identify with it – as a result, they remember it. Also I think music is such a powerful tool. I often describe it as the glue which sticks a product together. If you get the melody right for the product the music glues it together with such force that you can’t have one without the other. It’s a bit like making a James Bond movie without the James Bond theme – it wouldn’t be a James Bond movie any more. I think the fans of Tomb Raider identify the original theme tune I wrote back in 1996 with Lara Croft, and that, for them, will never change. That melody is Lara Croft.
What can we expect from the upcoming concert?
It’s a live orchestral performance by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra of The Tomb Raider Suite, which is a collection of the most memorable themes from the music I wrote for the computer games Tomb Raider (1996), Tomb Raider II Starring Lara Croft (1997) and Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998).
I have extended and embellished many of these themes stretching each one out to approximately three minutes in duration. There are a total of 19 tracks from the games plus two additional finale pieces and three medleys which provide unique content just for the live show. There will be some special guests and a signing/meet and greet session with the fans after the show. Also there will be a Q&A with me on stage at 6.30pm before the show and that is open for any ticket holders.
Can you tell us about the extended album release?
As I mentioned above, The Tomb Raider Suite is a collection of my music from the first three games. The original cues in the games were often quite short, some of them only 20 or 30 seconds in duration. Over the years the Tomb Raider fans have expressed which their favourite tunes are so I have chosen the most popular cues from the games and extended each one to approximately three minutes in duration. Sometimes that involved using the existing material in the cue and stretching it out, other times it felt more appropriate to write new thematic and harmonic material. I have tried to keep the new sections in the same style as I wrote 20 years ago and that has been somewhat of a challenge, knowing now what I do, I’ve had to pull back on some ideas and remind myself to keep things simple!
The plan is to record The Tomb Raider Suite using the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London, and it will be available on CD, vinyl and download.
We are currently looking for a recording contract for the album so if anyone reading this is interested in being a part of this amazing franchise, please get in touch. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
And we understand you’re working on an associated TV documentary too?
Yes that’s also in the plan. I have an incredible team of people behind me. David Burns of Eden Films, who is also the co-producer of the concert, is currently in talks with broadcasters. Because this year is the 20th anniversary of Tomb Raider, we’re looking to make a one-hour documentary about the music and the writing of The Tomb Raider Suite.
How involved are you in the 2018 Tomb Raider film?
At the moment I am listed as the composer for the film on the IMDB website. That is as much as I know right now.
What tips can you offer to composers wanting to get into videogame scores?
These days I really think it comes down to that old saying, ‘It’s not what you know but who you know.’ The industry is not what it was 20 years ago and there are lots of very good musicians and composers trying to find work within the industry. So I would say that networking is the most important thing.
Get a good showreel together and keep the material as varied as possible. Quite often in games, composers are asked to write in a multitude of different styles so you should be able to do that. It’s not about your music, it’s about what the client wants and what is right for the game. So go to computer game shows and try to meet some friendly producers – start small, with indie game developers – and as your portfolio and client base increases you will be able to pitch for bigger and bigger projects.
Want more? Read our recent Sound Chip Symphonies feature exploring the relationship between iconic games and songwriters…